Disability in the U.S., 30 Years After the Americans With Disabilities Act
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by Countable | 7.27.20
On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, which extended civil rights protections to people with disabilities and looked to prevent discrimination against the disabled in the workplace and in public spaces.
Thirty years later, the most recent census data shows that there were just over 40 million Americans with a disability in the US, or 13% of the population, not including those who are in institutions like prison, or long-term care facilities.
The ADA defines someone as having a disability if they:
- Have physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
- Have a history or record of such an impairment.
- Is perceived by others as having an impairment. The ADA does not specifically list all of the impairments that are covered, but the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) sought to examine a number of common disabilities.
The 2018 ACS provides context about who the ADA protects. Additional data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the role of Americans with disabilities in the workforce.
The types of disabilities
The ADA doesn’t specifically name every impairment it covers. But Census data groups impairments into categories, providing a way to understand who is living with disabilities..
In 2018, the most common disability was related to mobility, which affected 21 million Americans, or 7% of the population. Twelve million Americans — or 4% of the population — experienced hearing difficulties. Nine million Americans — 2% of the population — experienced vision impairments. Eight million Americans — 3% of the population – have difficulty with self-care. Twice that number struggle with living independently.
Fifteen million Americans — 5% of the population — live with cognitive or mental impairments.
The demographics of Americans with disabilities
The share of Americans experiencing a disability rises with age.
In 2018, 6% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 had a physical or mental impairment. Nearly half of all Americans aged 75 and above — 48% of all those surveyed — suffered from a disability.
Disabilities vary by race and ethnicity
In 2018, 14% of white, non-Hispanic people, 14% of Black people, and 9% of Hispanic people experienced some kind of physical or mental impairment.
Among racial groups, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of disability, with 17% of the population affected by an impairment.
Income and employment of Americans with disabilities
In 2019, an estimated 15.2 million people between the ages of 16 and 64 suffered from a disability, according to the most recent BLS data. Of that group, 5.1 million or 33.6% were in the labor force, meaning they had or were seeking a job. The group’s unemployment rate in 2019 was 8%, down from 16.2% in 2011.
In 2019, the labor force participation rate for those in the age group without disabilities was 77.3% with a 3.6% unemployment rate.
There’s a gap in earnings too, according to Census data. In 2018, Americans aged 16 and over who worked with a disability had median earnings of $23,848 (in 2018 inflation-adjusted dollars). This is far less than working Americans without a disability, whose median earnings in 2018 were $36,034.
Disabilities and educational attainment
The ACS estimates that in 2018, 12% of all Americans 25 and older had not completed high school. Compared to Americans without disabilities, those with an impairment are far more likely to have not earned a high school diploma: 20% of Americans with a disability haven’t completed high school compared with 10% of those without a disability.
Americans with and without disabilities have similar rates of graduating from high school (34% and 25% respectively) and completing some college or associate’s degree training (28% and 29%).
However, the gap again widens when comparing Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Thirty-six percent of Americans without a disability held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2018. For Americans with a physical or mental impairment, the number is half that: 18% of Americans with a disability have earned a bachelor’s degree or post-college degree.
Understanding the demographics of disabilities can help inform businesses, employers, and communities how to adapt to support a group that includes one in eight Americans.
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